I arrive in Boa Vista, in the Territory of Roraima, in the far north of Brasil, at three degrees North Latitude, at six in the morning and am met by my guide George who steers me to the Hotel Euzebio where, for $15, I have a nice, albeit monastic, cell off the lobby. The air conditioner was set on “high” and the knob removed and there is a single thin sheet on the bed, so that my effective choices were too much air conditioning or none at all. I suspect the management think they know which I will choose, but they are wrong.
George says he will see me at “midday”. Not “noon” or “one o’clock”, but “midday”: this is Latin America. There are flies on the plush furniture in the lobby of the Hotel Euzebio, as well as on the men sitting in them who look like heavies in a Clint Eastwood western.
On the large map of the Territory of Roraima on the wall of the hotel lobby I am struck how indeterminate seem so many portions of the national boundary, wandering with gentle, supple vagueness through mountains, gaining definition only when the line runs between named peaks. If oil is ever found there I am sure matters will be clarified.
In those days Boa Vista could be reached by land from the rest of Brasil only by a single road coming up from Manaus, unpaved except for the last fifty kilometers and in this season made impassible by high water.
Boa Vista lies near Guyana, the old British Guiana, and my guide was accompanied by a friend, a former Guyanese of English ancestry who had had to flee the country after taking part in an unsuccessful revolt against the Marxist regime of Forbes Burnham, and who immediately began telling me of the many wrongs and misfortunes which the Comrade Leader had inflicted on the country and the low state to which he had brought it. I had heard Forbes Burnham was a Marxist and since I had heard nothing of his regime’s successes I assumed there had been none, but the particulars of his story I took at face value as I could not see how whether I believed it or not made any difference, and it is much too late in the day to wonder if a system that cannot perform economic calculation can manage an economy.
My guide explained that there were all sorts of difficulties. That the barge from Manaus with gasoline had not yet arrived and yesterday he had to wait five hours in line and then could purchase only twenty-six litres and today his car is in the garage with a transmission problem and the Indian agency official who is married to some relative of his and whose permission is needed to visit the Indians, but who he assured me will be satisfied with a $100 “tip”, is somehow unavailable and maybe today I might like to go drinking or maybe get some girls. Sensing the need to establish a tone in the face of looming chaos, I replied that I would be quite happy to see the art museum or visit the botanical gardens, neither of which as far as I knew did they have in Boa Vista, but he understood what I meant and I heard no more of Bacchanalian tourism.
I was pleased to note that the “tip” for the government agent was still only $100, reassuring me that that part of what he had told me was probably on the up-and-up, at least to the extent that one may speak of a bribe to a government official as being on the up-and-up.
I was coming to realize that I am not viewing Boa Vista constructively. Here, in one of the poorly-accessible far corners of the Amazon jungle, a place that looked so interesting when I read about it, with untamed Indians and reckless gold miners and pistoleiros in the pay of ruthless land barons it just looks like a poor town someplace in the American South. It wasn’t at all like Greece or other places I’ve been: there were no booted Cretan shepherds, no hookah-smoking Turks, no ancient crones swathed in black and constantly crossing themselves. The mud in the street was not ancient mud trod by clanking hoplites and turbaned janissaries or churned under the hooves of Villa’s horsemen: it was just mud. As I was talking with my guide I remarked on the swarm of mosquitoes around our head: he said you get used to that here.
Later, after seeing the car still in pieces on the floor of the mechanic’s garage, George suggests that we hire a plane to take us into Indian country. The trip in by plane will cost some non-trivial but not outrageous amount, plus the $100 “tip” to the government agent, though I did notice that the exact amount of the “tip” was becoming more vague, and there was of course his fee, and the package was beginning to add up. I was losing my interest in Indians.
I had diffident feelings about intruding on them in the first place, as I could see no benefit to them from my presence -- and every visit by an outsider was one more piece of cultural disruption -- and I suspect as a general matter than I can learn more about them from a good library than from a few hours or days on the ground.
Perhaps sensing my waning enthusiasm, my hosts return to the deviltry of Forbes Burnham and pithy comments on the state of Brasil: “Everything in Brasil is corrupt. It all goes to the people with money and power. You want something, you go to see the Boss and pay him. Otherwise you stand in line with the poor suckers. In this gas shortage, you go to the politician and he’s got a truck in his back yard.” I assume this particular example was inspired by his having spent five hours in line the day before to purchase 26 litres of petrol.
We agreed that the following day we will drive to Bonfim for two days of Indians, miners, squatters, pistoleiros and other lawless amusements, though it soon develops that the transmission of the car we were going to take has not yet been put back together so I wait out of the morning rain in an air-conditioned gold-buyer’s office. There are no customers in the office, but the staff -- probably because they have no idea who I am or what I am doing there -- make a show of shuffling papers and try unsuccessfully to look busy and after ten or fifteen minutes someone brings me, unbidden, a cafezinho.
My guide eventually returns with no idea when his vehicle will be repaired, so we drive in his other car to see the Indian agent who is married to some relative of his and of whose corruptibility we may rest assured, but the agent turns out to be away from his office and it is there that we run out of gasoline, even though my guide had obtained twenty-six litres the day before, but by this time I have come to accept that everything in Boa Vista is more complicated than an outsider like myself could possibly understand and I do not bother to ask. Fortunately, we are within walking distance of what is called the Mafia Corner where Guyanese smugglers relax at Kitty’s beer garden and we can get a bite to eat and hear the local news. One benefit of being so near the former British colony is that any black person you meet probably speaks English.
The beer garden is on a shady bank with a pleasant view of the river and the jungle on the far side. And on our side are cats, flies, sleeping dogs, mud and litter and a large truck piled with boxes and sifter screens for miners who sift sand looking for diamonds. There were a half-dozen black women packed into the small cab of the truck and ten or twelve black men sitting uncomplainingly on top in the rain. It was an African scene. The driver appears and the truck will not start and the men on top get down to push and the truck coughs and starts, though each firing of a piston threatens to be its last. The truck is going to Bonfim, as I allegedly am, and I suspect that it is more likely to get there than I am.